Reproductive innovation enabled radiation in the deep sea during an ecological crisis

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Major ecological transitions are thought to fuel evolutionary radiations, but whether they are contingent on the evolution of certain traits is unclear. We show that the rapid ecological transition of anglerfishes into pelagic habitats during a period of major global warming coincided with the origins of sexual parasitism, in which male anglerfishes temporarily attach or permanently fuse to females to mate. A phylogenomic reconstruction of the evolutionary history of anglerfishes provides a strong inference for the convergent evolution of permanently-fusing deep-sea anglerfishes and their degenerate immune genes. Our results support that sexual parasitism was enabled by the degeneration of adaptive immunity and ancestral sexual size dimorphism. The combination of these traits facilitated the transition of pelagic anglerfishes into novel ecologies available in the deep open oceans after evolving from benthic ancestors. These results show how seemingly unrelated physiological and reproductive traits interact synergistically to drive evolutionary radiation in novel environments.

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